The Chinese coronavirus claimed an American cultural icon over the weekend: Grand Ole Opry member Joe Diffie passed away due to complications from COVID-19 on Sunday. He was 61.
Diffie might be unknown to a newer generation whose conception of country music consists of pop crossovers like Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts. But Diffie was a major player in the neotraditional revival of 90’s country music, channeling an ‘everyman’ ethos that deeply resonated in the country’s heartland.
Indeed, Diffie is indicative of many of the trends of American life over the latter half of the 20th century. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Diffie’s family moved frequently throughout his childhood. He harbored aspirations of medical school upon graduating high school, but instead married his high school sweetheart at age 19 and floated between a number of blue collar jobs: oil fields, truck driving, foundry. Neither the marriage nor the gigs lasted long. Upon the collapse of his personal and professional lives in 1986, Diffie went all in on his musical hobby and moved to Nashville.
Before long, Diffie was signed to a major label and releasing his own albums. But it wasn’t until his third album, 1993’s Honky Tonk Attitude, that Diffie achieved breakout success—and began to solidify his cultural place. His single “John Deere Green” channeled the same emerging redneck subculture as his thick mustache and unabashed mullet. The song tells the story of two “farm kids way down in Dixie,” Billy Bob and Charlene, who “settled down on eighty acres, raising sweet corn, kids, and tomatoes.” It was an aspirational, if not accurate, portrayal of American life.
Diffie’s personal life at the time of Honky Tonk Attitude is evidence of just how aspirational Billy Bob and Charlene’s story was. He became regular tabloid fodder in 1993, when he was frequently spotted with the widow of the popular NASCAR driver Davey Allison, who had recently passed away in a helicopter crash at Talladega. The situation was compounded by the fact that Diffie’s divorce from his second wife (not the high school sweetheart) was not yet finalized. The press speculated that his big break in his career was due to the scandal.
Whether or not that was the case, it’s undeniable that Diffie’s career took off at the same time. His follow up to Honky Tonk Attitude, Third Rock from the Sun, included his longest-lasting Number One hit: “Pickup Man.” The song, an ode to the ubiquitous vehicle of the heartland, includes playful lyrics like, “You know the cargo light gives off a romantic glow,” and “I met all my wives in traffic jams.” The plural wives, of course, contains more truth than Diffie and many of his fans might like to admit.
So definitive was Joe Diffie to the 1990s country scene that his music has lived on well into contemporary Nashville—and not just in legacy shows and appearances on the Opry stage. Jason Aldean’s 2013 hit “1994” is a tribute to Joe Diffie, and reignited interest in Diffie’s career among a new generation of country fans. Chris Young includes the line, “Got a Honky Tonk attitude from Joe Diffie” in his 2019 single “Raised On Country”. Evidently, Diffie’s cultural influence far surpassed that of more commercially successful musicians. His everyman persona resonated with a generation of Americans navigating an increasingly socially, culturally, and economically stratified society.
In a tragic way, perhaps it’s poetic that Diffie, the quintessential American everyman, would succumb to the virus that’s affecting every man in America. In his jovial 1993 hit “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die),” Diffie sings, “I’ll be the life of the party, even when I’m dead and gone.” He certainly will. Here’s to hoping Diffie has found his jukebox in heaven.